Are you up to it? What’s it like to work on a wind turbine?

The first working offshore wind farm in the U.S. has been producing electricity for more than a year, with its five 6-megawatt turbines spinning three miles off of Rhode Island’s Block Island, the first “toes in the water,” so to speak, eliminating the islanders’ reliance on diesel energy, and sending the surplus into the New England grid.

The future of offshore wind off the East Coast and in the Northeast particularly, where several states are setting the pace for the rest of the country, draws closer each day to the installation of utility scale offshore wind farms, with hundreds of turbines, gigawatts of energy, and thousands of jobs.

Figure 1: Installation of the last blade on the five turbines of the Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island. Photo courtesy of Deepwater Wind.

For a look at what a utility scale facility might look like, it’s handy to turn to YouTube, where offshore wind developers, manufacturers, vendors, and others have documented utility scale offshore wind in the establish European industry beginning at the end of the last century.

The massive pieces assembled to complete a turbine can weigh hundreds of tons, and their arrays will occupy hundreds of acres. The work of installing and operating a wind farm is a big job, with tasks both familiar and exotic.

To get a look into a utility size offshore wind farm, I’ve scouted out a couple dozen YouTube videos showing a number of the activities associated with them. I’ll start with those that deal with the work performed by the folks who work on offshore wind farms.

Take a look at an 8-minute video published in 2016 by Samuel Hawkins depicting a wind farm worker’s helicopter transfers to and from a turbine on his last day of work on the U.K.’s Westermost Rough wind farm off the eastern coast of Great Britain. It documents an OSW technician’s last day offshore, and shows some helicopter hops from turbine to turbine, the embark/disembark process, and a great perspective of the transfer process.

A video from the Betendiek wind farm, a German North Sea project about 25 miles west of the Denmark German border, offers a look at the Operations & Maintenance workers, pilots, and emergency responders going through some offshore training. They perform drills for medical evacuations, hard helicopter landings, and helicopter fires (without real fire or other emergencies, so fear not for the workers). The video was produced by Deutche Windtechnik, which operates the farm, in 2016.

Another video from the Westermost rough farm demonstrates the deceptively mundane act of transferring workers to and from their duty stations. It’s a task that takes place over and over, all day, every day. For the people who work these O&M jobs for offshore wind farms, wherever they may be, the process becomes routine. For the uninitiated, being delivered to and retrieved from the massive wind turbines looks more like an extreme adventure vacation. Some of the training and experience the OSW workers undergo is seen in this video from 2015, also by Samuel Hawkins.

Speaking of extreme, this Weather Channel video documents the mind-boggling work of an onshore turbine technician whose path into the field began while mountain climbing with her father as a child.  In the 2017 video, she is seen dangling from the hub of a turbine in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in order to repair the tip of a blade that had been struck by lightning. She looks very comfortable, despite operating power tools while hanging from a rope tied to the hub.

A 2015 video published by Lars Bulow shows a crew transfer by boat rather than helicopter. It’s not a fancy video, and it’s less than 5 minutes long, but it offers another look into this exotic, growing field of offshore wind power.

Finally, a 6-minute video from Broadcast Media Services in 2014 fills in the gaps of what goes on between the crew transfers. “The best part of the job?” the subject asks: Being on top of the turbine. “On a clear day, you can see 40 miles.” The worst part? “When you have to use the toilet you have to climb all the way back down to the boat.”

These several videos show some of the routines, requirements, and extremes experienced by those who work on the turbines in this blossoming industry. Are you up to it?

What the Offshore Wind Industry Could Mean for Massachusetts

Residents of Massachusetts and other states along the Eastern seaboard are experiencing the arrival of a new base industry for the state—offshore wind. Offshore wind is a distinct industry from onshore wind, owing to the vastly larger size of the wind turbines and the logistical complexities of working out on the ocean. The largest turbine on the market—the 12 MW turbine designed by General Electric—stands at 853 ft. The Prudential Building by comparison (not including the antenna), towers over much of Boston at 749 ft. With the arrival of this industry will come well-paying, white and blue-collar jobs in regions of the state that have relatively high unemployment. The industry also has the potential to expand the Commonwealth’s advanced manufacturing sector and create new markets for the state’s maritime and marine technology sectors.

The offshore wind industry got its start in Europe in places like Denmark and Germany. It then crossed the North Sea to the United Kingdom. As will be the case for Massachusetts, the UK offshore wind industry found its home ports in some of the more beleaguered cities of the country—places like Hull and Grimsby. These cities are similar to the Gateway Cities along the SouthCoast of Massachusetts—having lost their traditional industries but possessing untapped potential in their industrial ports. Now they are home to various facilities to serve the OSW industry: from operations & maintenance facilities to training facilities, from research facilities to factories. These facilities serve the OSW industry across Europe and create ripple effects in other areas of the economy.

Despite the relatively short distance between England and their blade facility in Denmark, Hull eventually became home to a Siemens blade manufacturing facility that now employs over a thousand workers. Originally, Hull was slated to become home to a nacelle factory, but the blade factory was a better match for the local workforce. Key leaders in Massachusetts have learned from this experience and are working to ensure that the Massachusetts workforce is prepared to seize emerging job opportunities. The workforce study commissioned by the Mass Clean Energy Center and being prepared by the PPC, Bristol Community College, , and Mass Maritime is a key step in that direction, by giving workforce development professionals the information they need to prepare the local workforce for the near term construction and operations & maintenance jobs.

Factors that will determine the speed and size of OSW industry growth in Massachusetts include the cost of the electricity produced by OSW as well as more generally, the size of the pipeline for new projects, the availability of shore-side infrastructure, and the extent to which the state obtains first mover status, which can lead to agglomeration effects as the supply chain co-locates. The cost of OSW is dropping rapidly, with the first subsidy-free OSW farm poised to be built in the Netherlands. According to a study conducted by the University of Delaware, OSW costs in Massachusetts will get down to 10.8 cents per kilowatt by 2027 (the deadline to procure 1,600 MW in OSW power). This is still much higher than for natural gas (5 cents per kilowatt), but costs will continue to fall as the local supply chain develops and technology improves.

The movement of the supply chain to Atlantic Coast is likely to happen much more quickly here than in the U.K. owing to the cost of transporting the massive components across the Atlantic (needless to say a longer trip than across the North Sea) and the emerging size of the U.S. market. While manufacturers we interviewed are keeping their location considerations close to the vest, they consistently noted that the U.S. is a major emerging market that is too big to ignore. When Siemens made their decision to open a blade facility in England there was estimated to be a 5 MW pipeline of projects, though this estimate turned out to be optimistic. Our analysis conservatively estimates a pipeline in the Northeast U.S. of about 4.6 MW of nameplate capacity, depending on capacity factors, although this is a small fraction of the total available resource in the existing wind energy areas.

It is clear that the ability to take advantage of the potential of the OSW industry in Massachusetts relies heavily on the ability of our workforce, infrastructure, and business leaders to anticipate industry needs and emerging opportunities. Done right, the potential for the state is substantial. According to a study by the PPC prepared for Vineyard Wind, average wages for occupations in the industry are over $80,000 , which compares favorably to the state average wage of about $67,000. Jobs range from white-collar legal and finance positions; to scientific and technical positions; to well-paying, blue-collar construction jobs; to long-term, stable jobs in operations and maintenance. Significantly, according to the PPC’s analysis of the Vineyard Wind project, about 90 percent of the Massachusetts jobs will be located in the Southeastern part of the state—an area that has fewer job opportunities than in Greater Boston and that includes sub-regions such as Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod, which struggle with the seasonal nature of their tourist-driven economies.

Furthermore, there is the potential to remediate and renew shoreside industrial sites such as the recently closed Brayton Point power plant in Somerset and Eversource/Sprague Oil site in New Bedford. Both must be used for water-dependent industrial uses given their location in Designated Port Areas, but would be very expensive to clean up for reuse. The companies in the offshore wind industry, which must locate by the water due to the size of the components, have the incentive to turn these properties around.

OSWEP is tracking these trends in an effort to inform an evidence-based industrial strategy. One year ago, the thought of local manufacturing related to offshore wind was a pie-in-the-sky idea to many. Today, it has been exciting to see how developers are already making commitments to procure some of the components locally, including crew transfer vessels for local boat builders Gladding-Hearn and Blount Boats and batteries from NEC Energy Solutions in Westborough. There has even been discussion of manufacturing some of the major turbine components on the SouthCoast, including towers, monopile foundations, and transition pieces. Ultimately, there will be OSW-related activity all along the Eastern seaboard and windfarm development will require a network of ports. However, the competition between states is fierce and there is a need for bold and quick action if Massachusetts wants to win the race.

Ready Player One – OSW Energy Price Parity? Game Over!

Massachusetts has the largest offshore wind (OSW) potential of any state in the contiguous United States. While many states are sparring for a piece of the OSW pie, it can be argued that Massachusetts is furthest along. Currently, three offshore wind developers have lease agreements to build projects in the federal waters south of
Martha’s Vineyard, and a decision on the first development is expected to be awarded by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources on April 23. With developers promising a construction start in 2021, the Massachusetts lease area will likely host the first large-scale offshore wind farm in the nation.

There are many factors driving development stateside: the presence of vast amounts of wind energy located relatively close to shore, in shallow water, and with significant population density close to these areas; the desire to diversify the country’s energy portfolio; environmental benefits of clean renewable energy; developers and manufacturers looking to open new markets; and the potential job and economic impacts for states. While each of these factors is a crucial element in the industry’s development, the primary catalyst driving OSW’s emigration from across the Atlantic are commitments by individual states to require power purchase agreements specifically for OSW. (Click here to learn more about state actions). As a result, the United States now has an OSW project pipeline worthy of European developers’ attention, especially knowing that these targets represent only a fraction of the total energy resources available off our Atlantic shores.

In the Bay State, the 2016 Act to Promote Energy Diversity directed Massachusetts electricity distribution companies to procure 1,600 megawatts (MW) of offshore wind by 2027. Other states, including Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island, have also set targets for OSW procurement. As of March 2018, the total amount of offshore wind set to be procured in the United States was between 4,595 MW and 4,745 MW of nameplate capacity, depending on capacity factors. Without these mandatory power purchase agreements, it is unlikely that interest in U.S.-based OSW would be developing at such an exponential rate, particularly since the U.S. does not offer energy subsidies that spurred much of the OSW development in Europe. Without the subsidies, OSW energy prices in the U.S. are still much higher than traditional fuels such as oil, gas, and hydro power.

However, offshore wind is becoming increasingly less expensive to produce. Costs have fallen more than 30 percent in the 15 years since the first wind farm opened. The Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) from offshore wind, which averaged about $240 (U.S.) per megawatt-hour (MWh) in 2001, fell to approximately $170/MWh by the end of 2015.”1 Recently, the price has dropped even further, bringing the LCOE down to $126/MWh in the second half of 2016. This is down 22 percent from the first half of 2016, and 28 percent from the second half of 2015. Subsidy-free wind farms are now being built in Germany and The Netherlands, with the auction results suggesting LCOEs in the range of $60/MWh to $100/MWh by 2020.2

Technological improvements and improved logistics will remain a key ingredient in lowering energy costs. The cost of financing will also decline as more projects enter the pipeline and investors perceive less risk in financing future projects. A larger pipeline will also spur supply chain efficiencies and lead to a more experienced workforce for subsequent projects, which become more efficient as workers learn by doing.3 State investments in infrastructure and workforce development may also help to reduce costs.

Thus, the question about price parity going forward is not if, but when. Admittedly, unless you have a flux capacitor and an old DeLorean, predicting the future is difficult. These are exciting times for the industry, and concrete answers to how quickly the industry will move and what it will look like in 10 years remain to be seen. But if the present is a predictor, it seems that U.S. OSW development advances more quickly than expected compared to even a month before (albeit much too slow for some). Just today, Bay State Wind (a joint venture between Ørsted and power company Eversource) announced that it signed a deal with a European manufacturer to build wind turbine components in Massachusetts (see: Importantly, if we want prices in the U.S. to quickly catch up to those overseas, we need to work quickly to continue to build the supply chain and logistics capacity here in the states.

Even though the task of building this industry in the U.S. while simultaneously working to drive down costs may seem daunting, the award is a win-win-win for many of the Commonwealth’s economic development, environmental, and energy goals. Clean renewable energy at the same or lower cost than fossil fuels, the promise of new jobs that run the gamut from blue collar trade workers to white collar scientists, and a new and expanding supply chain that supports both traditional manufacturing and the innovation economy? Game on!

[1] International Renewable Energy Agency. (2016). Innovation Outlook: Offshore Wind. Abu Dhabi.

[2] International Renewable Energy Agency. (2016). Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2017. Abu Dhabi.

[3] Kempton, Willett; Stephanie McClellan and Deniz Ozkan. (2016). Massachusetts Offshore Wind Future Cost Study. University of Delaware Special Initiative on Offshore Wind: Newark, DE.